Can You Recycle Compostable Containers? Here's How to Dispose of Them


Oct. 30 2020, Updated 12:42 p.m. ET

compostable container cup
Source: iStock

Plastic is everywhere these days, and it’s not exactly easy to get rid of. We’re not just talking about the fact that it doesn’t biodegrade — the very concept of plastics as a cultural norm is so ingrained into our society that it would be almost impossible to rid ourselves of it entirely. We use it in our cars and computers, our cups, cutlery, Tupperware, and takeout containers. 

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Plastic pollution reached an all-time high in recent years, and even the banning of plastic grocery bags and the innovations of new, biodegradable takeout containers have done little to diminish plastic's negative environmental impact, though they have certainly helped. But are these new, compostable containers a force for long-term change, or another wasteful problem just waiting to strike? 

compost recycle
Source: Getty Images
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What is compostable packaging?

Compostable or biodegradable packaging is a fairly new innovation. As such, it is still in the minority as far as its widespread usage. Several fast-food chains already employ them, however; Chipotle and Sweetgreen have both begun utilizing these new vessels for their takeout options. 

Despite the “green” branding and promises on many biodegradable containers, the problems inherent with these new creations are myriad. They range from complaints about their actual “compostability” to accusations that the contain cancer-causing “forever chemicals” that actually make compost more toxic. 

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What does compostable mean in this context?

All certified compostable packing is required by law to be biodegradable, but just because a thing is biodegradable does not mean it will actually break down in your compost bin. It just means it breaks down over time. Plastics, in general, take hundreds of years to break down, and when they eventually do, they just turn into toxic microplastics

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The thing is, if these compostable bowls and containers do not actually turn into compost, then the promises made by their manufacturer amount to nothing but a lie. There is proof that they do break down over time; however, many of them take much longer to decompose than we might have believed, especially if they aren’t disposed of in a specialized compost facility. Basically, if you’re throwing them into your backyard compost bin, you might not see any results for a while. 

Compostable materials are generally defined as organic materials that break down into a natural or organic state when placed into an appropriate environment. In a home compost bin, this is one that has the proper ratio of browns, greens, water, air, and soil. At a composting facility, the process will be accelerated thanks to heat, machinery, and other factors.

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Are compostable containers recyclable?

Biodegradable containers are not recyclable, and should not go in your curbside bin, but in some instances, they are compostable.

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Can compostable containers actually go in the compost?

Paper-based or wood-based compostable containers can technically go in any compost bin. Even despite the alleged leaching chemicals in paper-based biodegradable containers, they will still break down into compost.

Bioplastic compostable containers, on the other hand, can only be composted through commercial composting. Check your municipality's website to see if you have one of these industrial composting organizations in your area. If you do not, and all you have is a backyard compost pile, we don't recommend putting these containers in there. 

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Unfortunately, your best bet in this instance is just to reuse your bioplastic containers over and over, and then either save them for the day industrial composting comes to your area. But sadly, you may eventually have to trash them. Obviously, this is not an ideal situation, but until these containers are truly compostable, it might be all we've got. 

Do we throw out compostable containers?

With all the concerns being raised about so-called compostable containers, the question becomes whether or not it's safe to compost them at all?

If you have the choice, it's better to compost a compostable container than to throw it in the trash.

Throwing containers in the trash will ensure they end up in a landfill, where they will emit greenhouse gases like methane, even if they are biodegradable. (Even vegetables emit methane in landfills!) But of course, if the containers do contain toxic compounds, those compounds will leech into the earth. If we compost these containers and they are toxic, we have the same problem.

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can compostable containers be recycled
Source: Getty Images

Should we just stick to plastic and reuse it?

There is some validity in the argument that we should just continue using plastic takeout containers and reusing them to store our food, rather than try to shift towards uncertain compostable options. The problem in this argument lies in plastics themselves. You don’t need to keep every Chinese food container; you couldn’t, because where would you put them all? 

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Many of these are not recyclable either, or have been recycled too many times to be recycled again, and those are problems too. And of course, simply throwing them away isn’t an option either. That will just increase the plastic pollution problem we already have. As with most green technology, it will take time for the world to adopt these new compostable containers and to create a firm, streamlined process that allows for either true compostability or recyclability. 

Other options to reduce waste from takeout containers is bringing your own reusable containers to restaurants, or encouraging restaurants to employ a reusable container system for food delivery, like DeliverZero.

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